Our Forgotten Australians
CLAN members Chris Brenton and Beth Edwards
Catholics in Coalition for Justice and Peace
It is a sobering thought for us to remember that over 500,000 Australian children spent years living in institutional care up until the 1970s. This number includes Indigenous children and child migrants sent to Australia from the United Kingdom. Today many survivors of this experience struggle to cope with their memories of harsh discipline, military style regimentation and lack of emotional support during their all important developing years. The ‘homes’ were run by both government and non-government organisations. Survivors report that they were regularly cold and sterile environments.
Why children were in homes:
“Children have been placed in institutions for many reasons, including: family poverty; being orphaned; being born to a single mother; family dislocation from domestic violence, divorce or mental illness; lack of assistance to single parents and parents’ inability to cope with their children. Child sex abuse by a parent or step-parent was frequently cited in submissions to the Committee as the reason for welfare authorities placing a child in care. Often, a combination of these factors resulted in children being removed from a family and placed in a home.” (Senate Committee Report, August 2004. Chapter 3 page 65).
Today many survivors of this system that seemed to lack compassion or understanding find it difficult to live successfully in our society. The reasons cited are varied, but include difficulty in managing interpersonal relationships, not being taught living skills and a lack of education in many cases. Most report a lack of self-esteem, a life time of loss and grief, a fear of abandonment and an inability to trust. Ongoing feelings of inadequacy, resentment, isolation, depression and humiliation etc. affect their personal lives as well as their ability function effectively in the wider community. Worst of all is despair at the lack of acknowledgment by our society that this happened to them here in Australia and in our recent history.
During the time this occurred parents had few rights and were often victimised by church and government authorities. The authorities assumed that they knew what was right for children. It appears that the state and church were focused on maintaining power over society rather than on the needs of individuals and families within the society. Although the system was established within the cultural norms of the time it was paternalistic and an example of authoritarianism at its worst. The child as a human being who needed to be nurtured seems to have been ignored. It is amazing that some of the survivors have gone on to have successful lives. But according to the personal stories shared by numerous survivors both formally 9to the Senate Committee) and informally (at support groups) many have had tragic lives as a result.
As stated in the Senate report on Forgotten Australians (Chapter 4, 4.2)
“It must be remembered at the outset … that a large number of the children placed in the “care” of the state, especially during the 1950s and the 1960s were status offenders who had been charged with neglect, no visible means of support, being uncontrollable or exposed to moral danger. These were not crimes of the child. They were crimes of the parents or, in a sense, crimes of a society that at the time was not providing anywhere near sufficient help and assistance to families living in underprivileged social circumstances and often desperate poverty. As one witness succinctly stated: “We were not bad then and we are not bad now.”
Survivors have reported acts of aggression and abuse which were classified as “discipline” these including caning, flogging and sexual abuse. Others reported being exploited e.g. used as slave labour. Adequate health and dental care were regularly denied when needed. The Senate Report also details the use of the children for medical experiments:
“In June 1997, The Age printed a series of articles on children in orphanages and babies ‘homes in Victoria being used for medical experiments and research until the 1970s that included trials of new vaccines that did not work or failed to pass safety tests on animals.” (Chapter 4, page 115 Para 79).
Adult survivors report a variety of negative outcomes. Many suffer from mental illness and addictions. Those who received a poor education have only been engaged in low paid work, so live in poverty. An inability to form intimate relationships has resulted in marriage break downs. Problems raising their own children e.g. not being aware of children’s emotional, psychological and developmental needs or appropriate discipline strategies. Many are unable to cope with long term employment, due to severe bouts of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Many have contemplated committing suicide, others have committed suicide. Some have remained in institutions most of their lives, as they feel safer there than in the wider community e.g. prison. So even as adults they often feel worthless and stigmatised more so than others because so few people understand or know of their horrendous childhood experiences.
Members of the Forgotten Generation are now starting to approach life as “senior citizens”. Many are fearful of the prospect of not being able to live independently. The thought of having to enter an aged care facility is frightening to them, as it stirs negative emotions from their childhood. The fact that recent or short term memories diminish with age in many people and long term memories (childhood memories of abuse and neglect) come clearly into focus also needs to kept in mind!! The Department of Ageing and Disability is currently looking at the issues survivors of this system will face when entering care. There will be a need to acknowledge and address their well founded fear of re-entering an institutional setting at this time.
It is an interesting exercise to look at the economic, social and individual cost of this policy today. The financial stress placed on the health system, the court system due to the family breakdown, the loss of production when survivors are unable to work or are under employed is enormous. A strong economy requires a work force that is healthy, educated and able to function successfully in interpersonal relationships. Chapter Six of the Senate Committee Report (Life Long Impact of Out of Home Care) states that:
The study estimated the annual cost of child abuse and neglect to the Australian community to be $4.92 billion. The long term cost and the cost of public intervention accounted for around three quarters of the total cost, with the long-term human and social cost estimated at $1.94 billion per annum” (chapter 6, Para 57, page 167).
As a society we need to be vigilant and not allow this to happen again as it destroys generations of families and individual lives. The Care Leavers Australia Network (CLAN) Inc. reports in its October 2010 newsletter (The Clanicle) that:
“NSW and Victoria are the only two states to not hold inquiries into the past practices of the Child Welfare system, whose treatment of children in care is still impacting upon their adult lives today.” (Page 14).
The survivor’s report that little has happened since the Senate Report was released, they live in the hope that constructive change will be realised one day in the near future.